Appeared in Business in Vancouver – August 26, 2014
Let us now praise heroic soldiers. When better? Poet T.S. Eliot, best known for inspiring the musical Cats, called April the cruellest month. Wrong; that’s August.
Currently: Gaza. Ukraine. Syria. Iraq. Pakistan. And more.
It was in August that the war that didn’t end all wars began 100 years ago. It missed by a few days being the start of the second chapter of that war, 75 years ago, but its inevitability lay in the German-Soviet non-aggression pact on August 24.
It was the month of atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago, which hard-eyed realists know was better than the alternative: when Japan’s surrender August 15 spared the Allies and Japanese civilians from the meat grinder of invasion, 20-year-old infantryman Paul Fussell, already badly injured in France and an outstanding future scholar, wrote that “for all the practised phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy.” Later he scorned both the armchair pietists calling the bombings a war crime, and war’s romanticizers – “the sentimental, the loony patriot, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”
Would he have praised a supposed coward whose personal day of infamy occurred in an August two centuries earlier?
Wait, business angle! But for that general’s surrender, today we might live under the 59 or more stars of Old Glory. Our business big fish would be a 10th of their size in a bigger pond. Our economy, a 10th of the American, might have become far richer. No trade disputes, no loonie at a premium or a discount – helping or hurting some interests either way. No Quebec separatists? Maybe.
But the battlefield heroes of what has been called “the last just war” shouldn’t be ignored. Are they, a bit?
There’s been recent breast-swelling about Canada’s coming of age in the 1914 war, and breast-beating about internment of ethnic Japanese in the 1939 one.
Do I detect leftist unease about Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, New Westminster-born Victoria Cross winner, for his reckless pluck in the Italian campaign?
He was the sort who wins wars, or else. Today Pte. Smith of the Seaforth Highlanders would be flagrantly politically incorrect, so-called.
“You were a wild man, right?” Ken MacQueen asked in a great 2005 Maclean’s interview.
“Oh, yeah. I didn’t take orders. I didn’t believe in them,” Smith replied. No phony regrets. “I was never afraid to shoot. I’d kill the bastards. That’s what you’re paid for.”
Vancouver-born C.C.I. Merritt was cut from different cloth. He won his Victoria Cross audaciously commanding the South Saskatchewan Regiment in the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid (August again!). A lawyer and later Progressive Conservative MP.
Now that third soldier, Gen. William Hull. Hardly a conventional hero. Yet – fascinated since boyhood by the War of 1812, when the U.S. invaded Canada expecting quick victory – in maturity I unconventionally admire him. The oft-told story is excellently related in my late editor Bruce Hutchison’s 1955 book The Struggle for the Border, re-released by Oxford University Press in 2012.
Hull was the American commander at Fort Detroit. He had fought commendably in the American Revolution. But now he was 57. His responsibility for the fort’s soldiers and civilians weighed heavily. Especially he feared the Indians.
British Gen. Isaac Brock shrewdly informed him that “the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.”
Hull pictured his daughter and granddaughter scalped. Yes, the word and the fact have been banished from today’s ideology-laundered lexicon.
Hull surrendered without a fight. He was convicted of cowardice, and only presidential pardon saved him from being shot. And those whose lives he saved reviled him.
But if only every military commander – every one – copied Hull, the compassionate coward.
The date of Hull’s surrender? August 16, 1812.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014